Sunday, July 04, 2004

FREE SPEECH: Do Americans really believe in it?

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Amendment I

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."



essays & effluvia, Chicago style: Whenever I travel, I always seek out the regional papers. Its instructive to find a little local flavor, and read a perspective different from one's usual views. When you come from, as Spalding Gray used to describe it, "a small Island off the East Coast of America," its good on occasion to check out other voices.

So I was intrigued today, on the Fourth of July, to see the following rather interesting survey from the Chicago Tribune on their Perspectives section on the First Amendment.

Before lamenting the woeful state of Democracy in this nation, or the shocking ignorance of the responses of some of the poll participants (print edition only), be aware that these views are not all that unusual. I've seen many such polls asking questions like this over the year, and once I got over the initial shock, it actually makes some sense, making hte drafters of the 1st Amendment seem all the more wiser. The Founding Fathers were concerned as much by the "Tyranny of the majority" as they were outright oppression by the government.

The good news is that 84% of Americans believe groups opposed to the war be allowed to demonstrate and protest against the war. The bad news is that this remains, in part, a deeply puritanical country, immature and almost childlike in its fears of all things sexual.

Europe, we are not.

There are many deep paradoxes about this. While there is strong opposition amongst many to business and financial regulations by the government, there does not seem to be the same ardor for keeping government out of sexual or cultural issues. When it comes to matters involving dirty-naughty-peepee stuff, there is a deep vein (even a majority) who are quite comfortable with government regulation of content. And yet when you consider that the porn industry generates more revenue than the film, music and sports businesses combined, this seems sort of odd.

When you read some of the following outlandish and frighteningly ignorant statements, remember to cherish the First Amendment, and do whatever needs to be done from the relentless attempts to sandpaper it away, one small restriction at a time. (Unfortunately, only the print edition -- but not the inline version -- has interviews with the poll participants.) Although that's what some of the public -- more than half -- says it wants, but I suspect those making these statemments have not considered the longer term implications of these off the cuff, telephone interviewed views.

-BR

Should the government be able to limit what you can read, hear and watch?

The Chicago Tribune set out to measure some attitudes about those questions across America.

The results of the Tribune poll of 1,000 adults, taken from June 23 to 27 and presented in this Perspective, are remarkable not for the support they display for 1st Amendment rights, which was anticipated, but for the size of the group that would choose to muzzle all kinds of expression, from Stern's vulgarities to news reports on the prisoner abuse scandal in Iraq to criticism of a wartime government.

From the Internet to the radio networks to cable television and newspapers, substantial minorities would opt for an array of controls aimed at whittling away free expression, criticism and, yes, even political commentary. It does not mean, of course, that freedom of speech is in direct jeopardy. What it means is that those who would aggressively move to limit expression, however innocent or offensive, can depend on the support of a substantial audience.

Freedom of speech, then, is a right that could be diminished by ever-so-thin slices, a move that would apparently win the support of a lot of Americans as long as Howard Stern and his shock jock buddies were the characters being silenced. The Tribune poll shows that majorities actually support limitations in some areas. Generally, they involve sexual expression on radio or violence and sex on cable TV or on the Internet. The poll suggests that 76 percent of adults across the nation have access to the Internet, where content and access range from simple e-mail and scholarly documents and advertising to raw pornography.

It is the commercial hunting ground of saint and scoundrel alike, as comfortable for con experts offering Nigerian fortunes in exchange for a bank account number as it is for the well-intentioned who only want us all to be happier, thinner, bigger, prettier or whatever else might be packaged and sold.

There are signs in the Tribune poll that people are beginning to tire of the purple nature of some of the Internet's content. Just over half of the respondents in the Tribune poll said the government should impose restrictions on it. Only 38 percent said there should be no restriction. Republicans and people in the Midwest were the strongest backers of restrictions on content, but even a slight majority of Democrats said there should be controls.

Cable television, now something of a national theater of whatever anyone wants to broadcast that has some commercial value, is another target for government regulation, with 55 percent saying the government should restrict sex and violence programming on cable TV.

The strongest support for restriction, however, comes in that very area that is the target of so much attention now, the shock jocks and their dependence on sexual references. A full 64 percent of those questioned said "radio personalities who use implicit or explicit sexual expressions" should simply not be allowed on the air. Only one in three people said they should. Almost 6 in 10 support heavy FCC fines of radio stations that broadcast that kind of content. Just 33 percent disapproved.

Shifting into politics, the poll also discovered that the nation is split on whether there should have been restrictions on coverage of the Iraqi prisoner scandal. That means one in two people think there should have been some kind of restraint on coverage. Almost everyone believes people should be allowed to protest the war. About 6 in 10 think it should be OK to allow people to call for the overthrow of the U.S. government.

But almost 4 in 10 say that should not be allowed.

Twenty percent say negative reporting on the war should not be allowed. Twenty percent say critical editorials against a war should not be allowed. About the same number feel that the 1st Amendment itself goes too far. A little over 10 percent say the Patriot Act, which expanded government search and surveillance powers, didn't go far enough. Put those numbers together and think about a nation as a roomful of, say, 10 people.

The poll indicates that at least two of those people, and in some cases as many as five or six of them, would embrace government controls of some kind on free speech, particularly when it has sexual content or is heard as unpatriotic.


A TRIBUNE POLL ON THE 1ST AMENDMENT

Should the government impose restrictions on information and content that appears on the Internet
52% YES
38% NO
7% DON'T KNOW

3% UNFAMILIAR WITH INTERNET

Should the government restrict violence and sexual content that appears on cable TV?
55% YES
40% NO
5% DON'T KNOW

1% UNFAMILIAR WITH CABLE TV

Should radio personalities who use implicit or explicit sexual expressions be allowed on the air?
64% NO
30% YES
5% DON'T KNOW

Do you approve of heavy FCC fines of radio stations due to broadcasts they considered indecent?
58% YES
33% NO
9% DON'T KNOW

Should there be restrictions on the extent of the news coverage of the war in Iraq?
60% NO
33% YES

4% DON'T KNOW
(Even if lives are endangered? 4% NO)

Should there have been restrictions on the extent of the news coverage of Iraqi prisoner abuse?
49% NO
47% YES
4% DON'T KNOW

Should groups opposed to the war be allowed to demonstrate and protest against the war?
84% YES
13% NO
3% DON'T KNOW

Do you think the Patriot Act goes too far, not far enough or is it about right?
41% TOO FAR
38% ABOUT RIGHT
12% NOT ENOUGH
8% DON'T KNOW

Should groups advocating overthrow of the government and how to do so be allowed to make their views known?
56% YES
37% NO
7% DON'T KNOW

Should the media be allowed to publish or broadcast news stories that suggest war is not going well?
75% YES
20% NO

5% DON'T KNOW

Should the media be allowed to publish or broadcast editorial opinions critical of how the war is being handled?
76% YES
20% NO

4% DON'T KNOW

Does the First Amendment go too far in guaranteeing rights to free expression, or is it just about right?
64% ABOUT RIGHT
23% TOO FAR
5% NOT ENOUGH

8% DON'T KNOW

Should Administration officals be allowed to criticize the adminstration soon after they leave?57% YES
35% NO
7% DON'T KNOW

Do you think media coverage is biased in news stories about politics, elected officials and election campaigns?
76% YES
14% NO
9% DON'T KNOW

Which Party does the media coverage favor?
22% Democrats
13% Republicans
36% Both
5% Don't Know


The full text of the article is available at the link below; Its well worth checking out the print edition to see, in its entirety, interviews with participants.



Source:
FREE SPEECH: Do Americans really believe in it?
Charles M. Madigan, Perspective editor
Chicago Tribune, July 4, 2004
http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/perspective/chi-0407030292jul04,1,304700.story

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